There were 17 Malayalis in the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Indian Constitution, including 3 women – Annie Mascrene, Ammu Swaminathan, and Dakshayani Velayudhan. Of these, I would like to take you through the life and struggles of Dakshayani Velayudhan on this Republic Day. She holds the distinction of being the first Dalit woman to graduate in India, is said to be the first Dalit woman to wear an upper cloth in Kerala, and was also the only Dalit woman in the Constituent Assembly that framed the Indian Constitution.
Dakshayani Velayudhan was born in 1912 in Mulavukad, an island off the coast of Kochi, to a Pulaya family. Her father, Kunjan, was a schoolteacher who engaged in growing coconut trees on his land. Dakshayani was enrolled in a school at the age of 6 and went on to complete her BA in 1935. She then completed Teachers’ Training (LT) from Madras University in 1938. Her education was supported by scholarships from the Cochin State Government. Upon graduation, she started working as a teacher under the Cochin Government service. She served in the Government High Schools of Trichur and Tripunithara.
Back then, the Pulaya community faced acute discrimination in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin – they were not allowed to draw water from public wells, walk on public roads, and Pulaya women were not allowed to wear an upper garment. By the time of Dakshayani’s birth, there were movements against casteism, but the pace of change was painfully slow. Dakshayani faced discrimination both as a student and as a teacher, and she realised that politics could provide the means to serve the community and the nation, and drive the change she wished to see.
She was nominated to Cochin Legislative Council seat in 1942 and to the Constituent Assembly in 1946. She was a member of the Constituent Assembly and the Provincial Parliament of India from 1946 to 1952. She was the President of the Depressed Classes Fine Arts Club, Madras and Managing Editor of The Common Man from 1946 to 1949. She was also the founder President of Mahila Jagriti Parishad, a Dalit women’s group in Delhi.
As a member of the Constituent Assembly, Dakshayani Velayudhan took strong stances in favour of the underprivileged classes and sided with B R Ambedkar on many issues related to the Scheduled Caste community during the Constituent Assembly debates. Her stance for Article 17, that abolished untouchability and forbade its practice in any form, is probably what she is most remembered for. In the debate that ensued, she championed the cause by saying “The working of the Constitution will depend upon how the people will conduct themselves in the future, not on the actual execution of the law. So I hope that in course of time there will not be such a community known as Untouchables and that our delegates abroad will not have to hang their heads in shame if somebody raises such a question in an organisation of international nature.”
It is said that her peers in the Constituent Assembly often said that she asked too many questions. But this 5-foot tall unassuming figure was not a conformist and she embraced original thought and opinion in all spheres of her life. For instance, she did not convert to Christianity like her mother and elder siblings, and in 1940, when she married R. Velayudhan, a prominent Dalit leader and later Member of Parliament. Their wedding was officiated by a leper as a priest.
While Dakshayani Velayudhan did not actively participate in electoral politics, she continued to champion the cause of the oppressed till her death in 1978. She will forever be remembered for the role she played in the drafting of the Indian Constitution. It is in her memory that the Kerala Government instituted the Dakshayani Velayudhan award; an annual award that would be bestowed on a woman who works for the empowerment of women and who toils to uplift the marginalised among them. A stark reminder that the equitable India that Dakshayani Velayudhan set out to create is still in the making, and that we should all play our part in its creation.